Sometimes, I get a gut feeling.
Most of the time, that gut feeling is fear.
My junior year of high school, my friends and I planned to conquer a haunted corn maze. Everyone bailed, except for Gabby and myself, which was less than ideal because I had planned to use all my friends as shields. I settled for clutching Gabby’s hand. The night was dark, the cornstalks were high, and the dumb neon green glow stick they handed us casted an eerie glow on our surroundings.
Including a box in the path about halfway through.
I stopped walking.
It was a big box.
Gabby tugged my arm. “We have to go,” she said.
There was no way around the box.
A weirdo with a chainsaw was tormenting others somewhere behind us, but I would have much rather turned around and faced him again than confront what I knew was inside that box. I would’ve allowed Chainsaw Stalker to follow me around everywhere I went forever if it meant I didn’t have to walk toward that box that night.
In this world, very strong narratives exist for facing our fears and not turning back. These stories are in books, articles, news clips and personal anecdotes. They tell us not to be cowards. They tell us we may not survive, but if we do, we’ll be bolder, stronger humans.
The clown popped out as soon as Gabby and I began walking toward the box.
Painted face. Red, bulbous nose. White gloves. Technicolor afro and baggy, silky coveralls with floppy frills along the collar. Stuff of my nightmares climbed out of the box and stood before me.
Gabby started running, but I couldn’t move. I was petrified. Too afraid, even, to pee my pants. My body just stopped working.
Problem: I still had a death grip on Gabby’s hand.
So, Gabby started running … and I fell.
And you know what?
Can you guess what happened next?
THE CLOWN STARTED CRAWLING TOWARD ME.
Life, they say, is supposed to flash before your eyes in the moments preceding death, yet the only memory I recalled with my knees and knuckles in the dirt and trampled stalks of a corn maze, was eating cotton candy at the circus as a six-year-old and a clown sitting down beside me, looking at me, and saying: “What? You don’t like clowns? That’s a’right. I don’t like kids.”
Gabby saved my life. She turned back around, pulled me up off the ground, looked into my crazed eyes, and said, “You have to run. You have to run past the clown.”
Psychologists believe most fears are learned behaviors, rather than inherent for survival. My life is riddled with fears I have developed from my own past experiences and observing the experiences of others. In this world, very strong narratives of accidents and tragedies exist. The stories tell us not to be foolish. They tell us to be safe, not sorry.
I am afraid of almost everything. I am afraid that I am afraid of everything. I am irrationally afraid of concrete horrors, like clowns and spiders and people impersonating Talking Elmo, but those veins of fear are hardly the heart of the matter. My paramount fears are abstract. They haunt me daily.
I am afraid of the wrong place and the wrong time.
I am afraid I won’t be enough for the job.
I am afraid I won’t mean enough to the relationship.
I tell myself I don’t care what people think, but I do. Always, I am afraid of others’ thoughts.
I never fully conquer fears. I face the same fears over and over again. Doubt and memory instigate them all. Whenever I take a corner on my bike too fast, I remember falling as a child. Whenever I pick up the phone, I remember radio silence. Whenever I mumble a prayer, I hear an echo from a conversation over a mug of tea: “What if God does fit in a box?” What if the whole world, the whole universe, is tucked inside a straight-edged, tight-cornered box?
When I was younger, I thought I would outgrow my need for bravery.
Instead, I’ve found that my list of fears has grown since I was younger, and the need for courage is greater. Tomorrow, the need will be greater still.
Because what if I am in the right place, at the right time.
What if I succeed.
What if I am enough.
What if it’s not about me, and it’s about someone else.
What if the universe isn’t tucked inside straight edges and tight corners? I don’t believe life belongs inside a box.
Sometimes, I get a gut feeling.
Most of the time, that feeling is telling me to take a deep breath, have courage, and run past the box.
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.